NNTR and other attempts to influence language

By Emma Pearson

June 22, 2024

Image by i-am_nah on Unsplash

25 March 2023

Back in the 1980s, and possibly into the 1990s, I was quite an avid reader of two “wimmin’s magazines” – Company and Cosmopolitan. I just looked up to see if they still exist – they do. But I am curious how I ever found any of it interesting. Perhaps it was just a phase of life thing.

A couple of memories stand out from Company magazine though – which I rather preferred. One was that I was actually featured in it at some stage. I can’t remember what it was about, but I did get interviewed and went along for a photo shoot, and the photo and some text made it into the magazine. I can still picture the interviewer/features editor. She had beautiful auburn hair, tightly curled, almost like ringlets. I kept the magazine – that particular edition of it – for absolutely ages – though I don’t know if it’s still within 50 metres of where I am sitting at home. I doubt it. I don’t miss it, but I am mildly curious what the article was about.

My second memory is that at some stage my relationship with the magazine, I read about the woeful absence of a decent alternative to the words “boyfriend” and “partner” when describing one’s “significant other”. I seem to recall that the article bemoaned – as I did – all of the usual terms – such as boyfriend, partner, significant other, better half, other half, and proposed instead a new term: Fribbish. The writer suggested that we all start using the term “fribbish” – just dropping it into conversation, innocently, with an assumption that of course everyone would understand the meaning. And if anyone asked, “erm, what do you mean by fribbish?”, you’d just say, “oh – it’s the new, trendy, word for “serious boyfriend/girlfriend/lover/partner” – sort of all rolled into one. And then the conversation would continue, and before we knew it, the word “fribbish” would have taken over everyday parlance.

Well – it didn’t happen – at least to my knowledge. A quick glance at an online dictionary suggests there’s still no definition of “fribbish”, and invites you to put forward a good definition. I think the 1980s/1990s writer’s definition would still work. There still is not, to my mind, a good word for what Medjool is in my life, or for what Mike was for the 9 years of our relationship before I consented to marry him.

All of that preamble and mundane bit of early adult history to set the context for how hard it is to introduce new language. Clearly our language changes. I am using words, expressions and meanings that have completely evolved over the decades of my life. I remember looking up “woke” not so long ago after I started hearing it and reading it everywhere. But it does take more than a few people to change language.

One of my personal efforts these past years is to weave the shorthand “NNTR” into written messages. It is what I would have LOVED to have seen at the end of messages, emails, letters from people, while Mike was ill, when he was dying, after he died, as Julia started to struggle and spiral, and after her death. NNTR would have meant, “just receive my message as a gesture of love and attention, as a warm embrace, as a soft blanket, as a stroking of your cheek and hair…. I am here, I am thinking of you, I am concerned about your well-being, but I don’t need anything back from you. There’s no need to respond. NNTR”.

As I read messages – and I got many (at least initially) – the pressure to respond felt enormous. After all, I am a conscientious communicator. I (almost invariably) respond promptly to emails, whatsapps, phone messages. But just at the times in my life when I needed care and attention to actually land, to embed, I also felt the weighty expectation to respond, to provide answers, to enquire as to my friend’s own well-being.

It was heavy.

And I don’t quite know how it happened, but at some stage I mentioned just how hard it was keeping up with people’s messages and questions (for by golly were there questions that seemed like they needed answers). And some wise friend (was it you, Kay?) expressed horror that I felt I needed to actually respond. And Kay – or whoever – started writing NNTR at the end of messages.

Perhaps I have totally made up that story. No matter. Whatever, sometime in the past few years, I have started writing NNTR when checking in on people who are going through a rough time, or supporting others who are going through a rough time. I explain what NNTR is in the first message or two, and then I just sign off with NNTR. I also put in a get-out clause in case I forget to write NNTR. Early on I say, “I might occasionally forget to write NNTR, but please assume there is NNTR to my message”.

A dear friend (**) this week said that she loves NNTR and wants to “democratise it” with her friends and clients. I notice how pleased I am… My own little dent in the universe of language, perhaps.

I feel that NNTR is freeing.

Lightens – or at least massages some space and ease – around the enormous tension that is already being carried, 24/7.

Allows the gift of the loving, caring, supportive message to land more fully.

No obligation to return the favour.

No obligation to expend precious energy.

No obligation to spend time answering questions.

Just receiving the gift of warm wishes.

And so – can we start doing this? Can we add NNTR to our messages? And allow people who are in a shitty place to simply receive the message of care and attention when we are thinking of them. And – most importantly – really be okay with not hearing anything back. At least for a while. Perhaps even forever?

I occasionally hear someone say that they sent me a card after Ed or Mike or Julia died and that I never responded. It’s a weird thing, I think, to shame someone, for not doing that. So yes, I do feel a teensy little bit bad that they feel let down by me. But I also shake my head with disbelief at their apparent neediness for being soothed by the very person they seem to be trying to soothe.

Paying it forward, giving gifts of love and attention where they are needed – no strings attached – how powerful that would be, as opposed to words that have boomerangs embedded into them.

(**) Thank you to Laurence Bellet-Barlow for inviting me to write about the preciousness of “NNTR”.

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